Transmission Division of General
Motors Corporation in World War Two / WWII
Even though Detroit Transmission
made what became one of GM's most recognizable products in the
Hydra-Matic and later Turbo-Hydramatic transmission, its name has for
the most part been lost to history. This is due to the fact the
name of the Division was at some point changed to Hydra-Matic which was
in 1990 was absorbed into GM Powertrain.
Detroit Transmission Division of General
Motors first began in 1939 for the production of the new shiftless
transmission know as Hydra-Matic for introduction in the 1940
Oldsmobile. The following year Cadillac introduced it on its
vehicles and when automobile production stopped in February of 1942 for
the duration of World War Two,
200,000 transmissions had been sold. During the war Hydra-Matics
were used in various tanks and armored vehicles. After the war it
continued to increase sales as drivers switched from manual shifting to
the ease of automatic shifting and on September 22nd, 1947 Detroit
Transmission shipped its 500,000th Hydra-Matic.
This is a 1940 Oldsmobile chassis and drive
train that is on display at the Ypsilanti Automobile Heritage Museum in
Ypsilanti, MI. What is significant about the this 1940 Olds is
that it was part of the first year introduction of the Hydra-Matic
transmission, the first fully automatic transmission to be offered for
sale. Author's photo.
The development of the automatic
transmission lead to the forming of the Detroit Transmission Division by
GM management to manufacture the units. Author's photo.
General Motors policy was and still may be
for one car division to introduce a new product for sale rather than all
of them. This allows the corporation to monitor acceptance by the
public and keep any issues that arise confined to the the one particular
division. In the case of the Hydra-Matic the rough shifting issues
did not prevent excellent acceptance by the public, and the introduction
of the product at Cadillac for the 1941 model year. Author's photo
at the Ypsilanti Automobile Heritage Museum.
After WWII the
Division moved from its original location on Riopelle Street in Detroit
to a 34.5 acre plant in Livonia, MI. The Livonia plant was then
the scene for the August 12th, 1953 fire that destroyed the plant and
temporarily shut down production of Hydra-Matics for 12 weeks while new
equipment was made by all GM divisions. Simultaneously Detroit Transmission moved
into the former Ford Willow Run bomber plant and made Hydra-Matics there until the
vacated by GM in 2010 during the Great US Automobile Industry Meltdown.
When I went to work for Lansing Fisher Body on
Plant Protection in the late sixties while working my way through
college, the Hydra-Matic fire was still something talked about and
dictated much of what we did. As a result of the fire that was
started by sparks from a welder igniting nearby flammable liquids, GM
standard policy required on location approval by a Plant Protection fire
inspector before any welding or cutting was done. Fire prevention
within GM was driven by the Livonia fire. When I arrived at
Delco-Remy and became a supervisor in one of many tool rooms, I heard
stories from the "old timers" as to working 7 days a week 12
hours a day remaking the
tooling to restart production Hydra-Matic production. All GM tool rooms were involved in
this massive tooling endeavor. Not only were Cadillac and Oldsmobile Divisions
affected but Pontiac, Nash, Hudson, Kaiser and Lincoln were by then
offering the Hydra-Matic at that time.
An aerial photo of the infamous Detroit
Transmission fire in Livonia, MI on August 12, 1953.
In 1990 Hydra-Matic Division of GM, as it was
then known, was merged into GM Powertrain and lost its individuality and
Detroit Transmission Division
World War Two / WWII Production Numbers
/ Statistics: At least (49,862) Hydra-Matic transmissions for
various armored vehicles during the conflict, usually if not exclusively
being matched with an engine from another GM division. Below are
the applications for the Hydra-Matic Transmission that I have been able
to find. The 49,862 production total for war
production transmissions seems to indicate that the plant was put to
manufacturing other products for before the war it had a capacity of around 100,000
transmissions per year. Either that or I have not been able to
find all of the applications.
Transmission Division of GM World War Two Applications
(1,824) M5 Stuart tanks
(6,800) M5A1 Stuart tanks
(1,778) M8 3 inch howitzer motor carriages
(4,731) M24 Chaffee tanks
(3,844) Staghound Armored Cars
This World War Two Hydra-Matic Transmission can be seen at the Ropkey
Armor Museum in Crawfordsville, IN. The transmission is attached
to a Cadillac V-8 and would have seen applications in the M5 series
tanks, M8 motor gun carriages, M24 Chaffee tank, and the LVT(3).
Note that not only does it say Hydra-Matic on the case, it also says
Detroit Transmission Division on it. One person on the internet
stated irrevocably in an email chain that Detroit Transmission never
existed. Just another case of someone thinking they were an expert
on something they don't know anything about. Author's photo.
This photo shows Cadillac a V-8 attached to the Hydra-Matic transmission. Author's photo.
Two Detroit Transmission Hydra-Matics each were used in M5 Stuart tanks
like this one seen at the 2013 Thunder over Michigan Airshow.
This M24 Chaffee tank seen at
Ropkey Armor Museum also has two Hydra-Matics in it. Author's
Here can be seen rows of Detroit Transmission Hydra-Matics mated to GMC
270 cubic inch engines that are awaiting installation into Chevrolet
Staghound armored cars. Photo courtesy of the Military History
Institute in Carlisle, PA.
This Staghound (T17E1) with two Hydra-Matic
transmissions was photographed at the GM Milford Proving Grounds in June
Borg-Warner built 5,924 LVT(3)s like this one seen at the National
Military History Center in Auburn, IN. Each one had two Detroit
Transmission Hydra-Matics in it. Author's photo.
Looking into the landing craft from the rear
ramp area one can see the engine and transmission covers have been
removed on each side. Author's photo.
This photo shows the Hydra-Matic
transmission connected to the Cadillac V-8 on the right or starboard
side of the LVT(3). Author's photo.
Here one can actually see the
Hydramatic embossed in the casting. Author's photo.
The left or port side
engine/transmission bay. Author's photo.
The Hydra-Matic on the port side had a
coating of dirt and oil on it. Author's photo.
This T18E2 GMC built Boarhound used two
Hydra-Matic transmissions and was photographed at the GM Proving Grounds
on January 19, 1943.